Cabinet Members will answer questions from Members on their Portfolios.
Cllr R Evans addressing the Cabinet Member for Finance stated that given the known and continued effects that Covid 19 has brought to our high streets could Mid Devon seek to lead the way in offering additional assistance to our town centres and shop keepers. The recent ‘Love your Town Centre Fund’ is a welcome initiative but the current situation demands us to be more proactive and offer more immediate assistance. Shops have been given the green light at last to open up and to welcome the public back through their doors. Can Mid Devon seek to offer an immediate benefit of some free parking for an agreed period of time within the 3 main town centres as other town councils have, Wellington and Taunton are 2 relatively local examples. Such a gesture would help to give a much needed boost to shops and businesses and would show the residents of Mid Devon our commitment to our town centres. Funding could be taken from money available from a second tranche of town centre grants and town councils could also be asked to consider contributing from the precept monies that they raise to assist towns in a number of ways.
The Cabinet Member for Finance responded stating that yes he did agree that this would be a positive step for our towns to be able to offer some free parking for a limited period of time in order to make a surge in the town centre and to get more people in there. I am aware that huge job losses are being announced across the board in town centres across the country and this is a very worrying time for lots of people and anything that we can do to try to stimulate a resurgence in our town centres is a really positive thing. I know that a lot of people during the pandemic have been shopping locally and we would want to continue to support that. Please be rest assured that this has been raised with the S151 Officer and we are looking into when we would be able to implement this, at the earliest opportunity. When we are able to do this I will then revert back to the Council.
Cllr R Stanley, addressing the Cabinet Member for Housing and Property Services stated that some of your Cabinet colleagues have over recent times provided a useful written resume of their portfolio and other things, unfortunately no such briefing has been received from yourself covering matters within your portfolio, it would be most useful if you are able tonight to provide members with a brief verbal report on those matters that you are responsible for.
The Cabinet Member responded stating that he would be publishing in the next couple of days an update which he hoped to do on a fortnightly basis from now on.
Cllr Wilce, addressing the Leader stated that this administration has said many times that it wants to be open and transparent in its affairs but I would say that there remains significant room for improvement, especially relating to matters of 3 Rivers. To that end, I commend the Leader for stating publicly the questions rather than take them to the private meeting tomorrow as was suggested by Cllr Evans. Transparency should always be the starting point and not secrecy, will you commit to taking action to ensure that all future reports presented to Council are in such a way that only information that is actually considered to be exempt for publication is withheld from the public and not the entire contents of those reports. Will you also commit to ensuring that the minutes of confidential meetings comply with the Local Government Act in that they provide the public with sufficient information as to know what business was transacted in private without releasing confidential information?.
The Leader referring to the previous question stated that the Cabinet were very alive to what was going on in the town centres and referred to the road closures in Tiverton and that the Cabinet were looking at what they might do to alleviate the lack of on-road parking spaces by making an adjustment perhaps to one of the car parks.
The Leader referring to Cllr Wilce’s question stated that he could assure him that he would be in discussion with the Monitoring Officer to discuss how all future reports presented to Council be more fulsome and transparent in order that discussions, whatever the subject can be held in Part I and that Part II discussions will be reduced to the absolute minimum. The lack of open discussion at public meetings has led to frustration on the part of both members and the public and that obviously feeds false rumours and cannot be of benefit either to this Council or to the public perception in the way that this Council operates. I can assure you that the discussions with the Monitoring Officer will also cover the extent of minutes of confidential meetings and their compliance with the Local Government Act.
The Monitoring Officer stated that the members of the Audit Committee would recall and that it was in the minutes of the meeting held on 23 June, that she had undertaken to bring a report to Council to have a consistent approach to minutes in the future.
Cllr Wilce addressing the Leader stated that we have received audit reports detailing what governance issues were identified for the running of 3 Rivers along with recommendations for action. Such reports do not go into detail as to how and why these issues came about or who was responsible for them. This should not be taken to mean that mistakes have not been made nor deliberate acts of omissions that gave rise to the rest of these issues, as yet we don’t know how or why these things happened because no one has elected to provide that information and so we are obliged to carry out that further piece of work if we are to do our jobs properly. In doing so we must be mindful that the actions of others have also had a serious affect on governance, such as the delegation of shareholder responsibility to the Chief Executive by the previous Cabinet. I have also heard criticism that you have contributed to the problem by not acting as swiftly as you might have once you became aware of these issues. Would you like to respond to this criticism?
The Leader responded stated that he wanted to set the record straight, on May 23 2019 the day after I was appointed as your Leader I sat in the Chief Executive’s office and one of the topics that was discussed, as you would expect was 3 Rivers. I did request at that meeting that I wished to be told of any problems before the end of May 2019 and any such disclosures would be dealt with as appropriate on a non blame basis. I could give no guarantees as to how I would respond if problems came to light subsequently. Over the next 5 months, I regularly requested that an external report be commissioned in order that we might have an assessment of any remedial action that may be necessary to take in respect of 3 Rivers. You will be aware that for over the previous 12 months, both the Chair of Audit, myself and many other members had a concern about a potential conflict of interest by individual directors, these conversations came to nothing until November 2019, at which point it was admitted that it was thought it was only me who was interested in finding out about 3 Rivers and that by definition, I did not have the support of my Cabinet. In November 2019, Anthony Collins Solicitors were commissioned to write the report that I wanted, except that when this was produced in December 2019, the report only addressed a question in relation to winding up 3 Rivers. That did not reflect what I had been asking for in the previous 6 months. Anthony Collins Solicitors were then commissioned to review 3 Rivers in the light of my constant request - ie what would the recommendation be regarding the company to support continuing with 3 Rivers, with the existing directors, continuing with 3 Rivers with a new board of directors, winding down the company (completing existing projects but not starting any new projects) and winding up the company. You have seen the report of Anthony Collins Solicitors which was produced in February 2020 and at their recommendation a further report was commissioned from Bishop Fleming which was received in May 2020. Unlike my previous life in London in international banking where matters such as 3 Rivers would have been dealt with in 13 days, in the Local Authority world it takes 13 months and counting. Tomorrow you are all invited to discuss with the 3 existing directors the company’s performance since its inception. I consider the 3 Rivers debacle to be totally non political and I don’t see any future in it becoming a political issue, I have been trying with the support of my Cabinet to resolve the issues with 3 Rivers as quickly as possible. Without 6 months of unreasonable delay, 3 Rivers would now be up and running and we would now know how they were going to perform going forward. The delay has held up 3 Rivers activity, but Covid 19 has not assisted. I am not going to accept any liability for this delay.
Cllr Wilce addressing the Cabinet Member for the Working Environment and Support Services asked whether she would join him in thanking Mrs Irene Hill for her services to the District Council and could she assure members that improvements will be made to ensure that all members and staff are positively enabled to perform their duties.
The Cabinet Member responded stating that she would of course thank Cllr Irene Hill for her service to the Council and her constituents, despite her difficulties she went to great efforts to contribute fully and I regret her personal decision to resign, I can assure members that officers are currently working on reviewing practices to see what more support can be given to members in similar circumstances.
Cllr Wilce addressing the Cabinet Member for Finance, stated that before racing into a decision to offer free parking, will he ensure that a study is made into the impact of doing that in the past and to establish whether or not it does actually provide a positive benefit?
The Cabinet Member responded stating that discussions were being had with the S151 Officer into affordability and as to whether this would improve the situation, we need to get the latest data with regard to the number of receipts we are having and we will look at the next steps.
Cllr Warren addressing the Leader stated that over an extended period of time concerns have been raised by members of the public and elected members over the operation and governance of 3 Rivers Developments Limited, this company is wholly owned by MDDC and elements of its operation and financing has been the subject of independent reports and discussions in private without the press and public being present at various committees. Various concerns have been raised reflecting alleged short comings in governance and loans and staff payments, has anyone accepted responsibility for that or even that these concerns are justified. If they have can we please be made known and can we then please move on to either making 3 Rivers a viable operation or failing that make suitable arrangements for the closure of the operation with the minimum amount of financial damage to the Council.
The Leader responded stating that the short reply was no and no. As no responsibility has been accepted I cannot make any acceptance known. The approach to 3 Rivers at all meetings to date not withstanding that they have always been in Part II have been on the basis of discussions being non-political and non judgmental and I trust that future meetings including tomorrow evening will be conducted on the same basis. Members will already have read not only the comments and recommendations in the Anthony Collins Solicitors and Bishops Fleming reports but will also have assimilated the comments for the Devon Audit Partnership and the Grant Thornton Audit reports. You can make up your own minds to where things should have been done differently and the person or persons who should have conducted more vigorous oversight, it will be difficult to pin point on any individual any blame as I have realised that within the Local Authority world. It would appear to be ungentlemanly to acknowledge any fault unlike in the real world. it is my and the Cabinet’s intention that we pick up the pieces of 3 Rivers and restore it to a viable company, but obviously there are various and extensive changes to be made to the operation of the relationship between 3 Rivers and its parent company Mid Devon District Council and to the performances of individuals in both entities. Obviously if it takes too long to set up 3 Rivers on a satisfactory basis, both in terms of its legal approach, governance and financial arrangements coupled with a new board, then procrastination to achieve that may lead to the premature closure of the operation. Whether the company survives is substantially dependent on the will and cooperation of the company’s sole shareholders representative. As Members will realise, Cabinet have not had the best assistance or cooperation over the last 13 months and that approach needs to change for the benefit of 3 Rivers and the Council investment of public funds.